In 1947, when Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, the world was not integrated. The movie “42” would have to last a lot longer than a couple of hours to tell the whole story: the death threats, the insults from fans, opposing players and his Dodgers teammates, Robinson’s separate and unequal trials, the pressure to perform in the face of it all. He was jeered, then cheered by thousands and faced it alone.
There wasn’t a closet big enough for him to take refuge in.
This week Jason Collins, a National Basketball Association center, became, as he writes in his Sports Illustrated cover story, “the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport.” Is he the Jackie Robinson of 2013? No.
Is he unbelievably brave in his own way? You bet.
It’s easy to see the differences between Collins and Robinson, their lives and times. In 1947, Robinson knew the hell he was walking into and took that deliberate step – or more accurately dance, in the form of teasing, base-running intrigues that bedeviled the white players who spiked him or threw at his head in frustration and resentment.
Collins’s 2013 world is infinitely more publicly tolerant. There will be no managers and teams lining up to spew obscene invective, mimicking the tactics of Ben Chapman and his Philadelphia Phillies when Robinson came to bat.
And because one doesn’t wear sexual orientation as a skin-deep badge, Collins was able to time his own coming out. In 2013, with African American players a dominant force in the NBA and other professional sports, race was barely a part of his declaration. Telling his story, Collins comes off as a reluctant pioneer. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
But just as 2013 is not the post-racial paradise some have wished for, a professional athlete who comes out is going to pay a price.
Pioneers can cease to be individuals. Robinson, the college sports star and military officer with a background few white players of the time could match, was simply and simplistically “the black Major Leaguer.” To some, any facts and stats for Stanford grad Collins disappear as he becomes that “gay NBA guy.” Because people know one thing about you, they may think they know everything.
True, Collins has been commended by other NBA players and the president of the United States. Collins, though, is going to get a lot more than that, even in a time when states are voting to legalize same-sex marriage with the Supreme Court weighing in.
There have been the cynical reactions, the argument that the announcement by Collins is no big deal so why all the fuss, or that it’s a ploy for attention by a 34-year-old journeyman, a free agent looking for a politically motivated offer from a team or, more likely, a fat book contract. When I turned on the evening news, a local homophobic minister was getting way too much air time for a televised rant condemning Collins and his claims that he was raised a Christian. Chris Broussard said on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that homosexual acts, adultery and premarital sex were “walking in open rebellion to God.”
A caller to NPR suggested separate locker rooms and showers – seriously.
Former NBA star Charles Barkley had the best reaction to that, I thought. On CNN, he told Anderson Cooper that anyone who thinks he’s never shared a locker room with a gay player “is an idiot.” He said he’s played with several gay players who were “all business,” since presumably they were concerned with winning games. (Along with Barkley, I have never figured out the guys who think every man and woman with a pulse finds them irresistible.)
Barkley said he believes that the locker room will be a refuge from a society that is more homophobic than any macho sports star. As Collins writes, “I’ve taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be one now.”
For Collins, I hope one difference between 1947 and 2013 may prove to be the life saver number 42 never had. Jackie Robinson died gray-haired and worn at the too young age of 53, and you can’t help wondering that, along with his illnesses, the pressure of having to stoically prove so much to so many took its toll.
In 34 years, Collins has already lied to people he loved, his twin brother, family, friends and Carolyn Moos, the fiancée who said she didn’t suspect a thing. The secret codes he describes in the Sports Illustrated article – such as wearing jersey number 98 marking the date to honor the memory of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student killed in an anti-gay crime – speak to the dual identities he presented to the world. It’s hard enough for most of us to muddle through just one.
Collins writes, “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage.” He hurt himself and all those who got caught up in the lies.
On the cover of Sports Illustrated and on TV now, Collins smiles broadly. He looks relaxed and free. “I know that I, right now, am the happiest that I’ve ever been in my life,” he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC. “A huge weight has been lifted.”
There are different ways to leave a legacy. Collins isn’t Jackie Robinson, but he doesn’t have to be, not to that child who finds courage in his story.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3